by N. Scott Momaday
Adapted as a radio drama and
Presented in the Wells Fargo Theater at
The Autry Museum of Western Heritage
Edward Albert, John Aniston, Michael Horse, Sandra Horse, Tamara
Krinsky, Zahn McClarnon, and Arigon Starr, with flautist Rey Ortega
the Great Spirit had desired me
to be a white man
he would have made me so
in the first place.
He put in your heart
certain wishes and plans;
in my heart he put
other and different desires.
Each man is good
in the sight of the Great Spirit.
It is not necessary,
that eagles should be crows."
..Sitting Bull (Teton Lakota)
1891, three homesick but unconquered Kiowa boys braved a blizzard
to run away from the government boarding school where they had been
interred and beaten in order to "educate the Indian out of
the man." They were attempting desperately to reach their families'
camp, and in the process, they froze to death.
true tragedy is the subject of a stage play written by preeminent
Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday, which has recently been presented
as an offering of the ongoing Wells Fargo Radio Theater at the Autry
Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. Dr. Momaday is himself
an unusually successful survivor of Indian boarding and military
the play treats an extremely important aspect of American Indian
history and sociology, it will likely be most interesting and informative
to non-Indian audiences who may not be familiar with the advent
and continuing existence of the Indian boarding schools that sprang
up across America at the end of the nineteenth century. For the
uninitiated, here's the background information: Starting with
Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the institutions
were the brain-children of Richard Henry Pratt, a former cavalry
officer who believed that they would "civilize" the Indian
children placed there and help them assimilate into the new American
culture. This plan was Pratt's well-meaning but patronizing,
heavy-handed, and poorly executed attempt to solve the "Indian
problem" and save the Indians from ongoing slaughter and imprisonment
by turning them into non-Indian conformists.
very young children who were removed from their families and sent
to these schools typically found themselves hundreds or even thousands
of miles from home, denied their own languages, dress, and cultures,
and forced to become ersatz "Americans," trained to do
manual jobs that many European-Americans considered beneath themselves.
During its operation from 1879 to 1918, more than ten thousand Native
children attended Carlisle school alone. Its cemetery still contains
186 graves of students who perished while incarcerated there. It
was the archetype of the Indian boarding school plan, and one of
its most enthusiastic clones was the Kiowa school near Anadarko,
Oklahoma. It is in this latter setting in 1891 that the action of
The Indolent Boys takes place.
play by the acknowledged dean of American Indian literature was
written in the eighties and was mounted recently as a full production
in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque. For this current iteration, Momaday's
play was adapted as a radio drama by co-director/producer Lori Tubert.
presentation at the Autry opened with the music of flautist Rey
Ortega (Apache/Mexica), who also offered some very funny introductory
material about how he happened to take up playing the flute. Indian
music "diva" Arigon Starr (Kickapoo), also a cast member,
followed with a version of one of the songs from her "Wind-Up"
album, which she had adapted to reflect the content of the play.
Announcer Sandra Horse (Cree) welcomed the audience and introduced
the radio play.
play begins with Starr's character, Mother Goodeye, a Kiowa
elder speaking with great love about her favored grandchild who
had been sent to the boarding school and was the natural leader
of the three who had recently run away. As she has in two previous
Autry production, Starr brings warmth, humor, and energy to her
character, uplifting the otherwise somewhat dark and brooding play.
play revolves around not only the crisis brought on by the escape
of the students but also the central figure of John Pai (Zahn McClarnon,
Hunkpapa Lakota), a Kiowa student who is about to graduate and be
sent to seminary to train as a minister. John has resigned himself
to assimilation and has become expert at smoothly parroting back
the ideas and phrases he has been taught. McClarnon plays the character
very low key, communicating the underlying depression and sense
of irony his state in life has imposed. He is a young man dispossessed
of his heritage and culture, explaining to us that he has been split
in two: "I have been taught not to remember but to dismember
myself. What am I now? I am a white man, am I not? The best student
the school ever had. I am a man beside myself."
this passage and others, Momaday incorporates both personal stories
told by the play's characters and also traditional Kiowa stories
and tribal histories. One of the most moving is a recollection of
how Indian children were brought into boarding schools and unceremoniously
stripped down, shorn, deloused, and forced to pick an arbitrary
Christian name from a list on a board.
Horse (Yaqui/Zuni/Mescalero Apache) plays Emdotah, the father of
one of the lost boys, a man who has struggled with some of the same
conflicts and issues faced by John Pai. Horse, whose mother attended
an Indian school in Phoenix, co-directed the play, and he displays
his usual affability and humility in an understated and persuasive
performance. His character ties the story together and gives us
an overview of its historic context, as well as further revealing
the disparity between Indian and non-Indian viewpoints.
actors who portray authority figures at the school manage to add
depth to potentially two-dimensional characters. Tamara Krinsky
does a convincing turn as an earnest and intelligent young teacher
whose relationship with John Pai has awakened her latent womanhood.
She expresses an understandable conflict between her own intuitive
and romanticized responses to John's suppressed heritage and
her ingrained belief in the inherent rightness of the world she
has helped overlay on him to suppress it. John Aniston shows his
veteran stripes quite competently as the school superintendent whose
opinions change with the current wind. The most impressive performance
of the three is given by Edward Albert, who offers a thoughtful
and multilayered portrayal of headmaster Barton Wherritt, a man
of weak resolve whose deep fears of failure and lack of understanding
of his charges press him to patronize those he controls and to betray
his own humanity.
play ends with the Kiowa characters' reactions to this tragedy and
others, expressing a particularly Indian perspective about life
and its diverse experiences. The beleaguered tribe reacts with grief,
anger, and feelings of hopelessness, and through a collateral event
that evokes laughter amid their tears, they remind us that life
is "a matter of balance - that is how to think of the world."
with other productions seen at the Autry in recent years, this one
was uniformly professional and was greatly enjoyed by the mostly
non-Indian audience in attendance. Previous Wells Fargo Radio Theater
presentations from American Indian authors and dealing with Indian
characters and history have included two plays written by Jackie
Old Coyote (Crow), and it can only be hoped that the series will
continue to put forth such offerings in future. These radio theater
presentations are an admirable addendum to the yearly slate of readings
and staged theater pieces from the museum-sponsored Native Voices
program. It is heartening to see that the Autry has become a showcase
for so many works by Native authors and with Native cast members.
performance of The Indolent Boys was presented to benefit The Buffalo
Trust, an educational organization founded and chaired by Dr. Momaday,
whose mission is to carry the experience of the sacred to Indian
people, and especially to Indian youth, as part of their unique
inheritance. The ongoing Wells Fargo Radio Theater productions,
a project initiated by Rosemary and Newell Alexander, are recorded
live before audiences, and these recordings are retained at the
Autry Museum of Western Heritage for future broadcast and other